When does stress help you and when does it hurt you? There is no doubt that stresses of the wrong sort can lead to anxiety, emotional turmoil — and eventually depression and diseases like atherosclerosis and cancer. Yet a central theme of this blog is that certain stresses are “hormetic”: at the right dose and frequency, stress can actually make you stronger and more resilient. The many posts on this blog illustrate how stress can be channelled to build muscle, retrain appetite, improve eyesight, strengthen immunity, defeat allergies, and tame addictions and anger. Judicious exposure to stress can even promote joy and excellent health.
But one can come away from the study of hormesis with the misleading impression that it’s all about adjusting the level and timing of stressors to induce an appropriate adaptive or defensive response. In this article, I would like to focus on a frequently overlooked ingredient in hormesis: the role of intention, attitude and voluntary choice. If you omit this ingredient, you are leaving out an important element of the way that stress helps you become stronger.
Voluntary, deliberate exposure to stress can be particularly effective in providing psychological benefits, including overcoming anxieties, obsessions and phobias, and vanquishing appetite cravings, addictions. Beyond overcoming such self-defeating tendencies, deliberate exposure works to unleash confidence and generate a sense of joy and accomplishment.
How much weight lifting or other exercise is optimal for fitness? What is the right amount of carbohydrate restriction or fasting for sustained weight loss and health? What level of exposure to allergens will reduce allergies? How many hours of sun tanning is healthy? How frequently should plus lenses be worn to reduce myopia? Do I need to take cold showers every day to get their benefit? How much stress is enough — and how much is too much?
Many of the questions I get on this website and the forums are of this type. People understand the general concept of hormesis, namely that exposure to controlled amounts of stress can be beneficial, because it elicits beneficial adaptive responses in the organism. They understand that weight lifting builds muscles, and that intermittent fasting and calorie reduction can be healthful. But too much of any stressor — weight lifting, caloric restriction, sunlight, allergens — can have adverse consequences. With hormesis, it seems, the Goldilocks principle applies: to get a benefit, the level of stress must be “just right”. And because it’s so easy to veer into overload, many people seek to avoid even mild stress: Avoid allergens. Cover up with sunscreen. Eat frequent small meals. Don’t exert yourself. But if you choose this path, you forgo the possible hormetic benefits.
So how do you determine the optimum level and frequency of exposure to a stress? And how much rest or recovery between exposures is optimal? Read More
Do you have trouble getting to sleep at night or staying asleep? About 30% of the adult population reports difficulties initiating sleep, sustaining sleep, or experiencing restful sleep. To deal with these problems, many people resort to medications or some form of supplement. But it now appears that there is an effective way to banish insomnia without the use of chemicals, by simply applying the principles of hormesis.
One of the primary topics covered on this blog is intermittent fasting (IF). Many approach IF as a diet or weight loss method. I know from research, personal experience and conversations with others that IF can indeed be an effective way to drop unwanted pounds. However, viewing IF as merely a new way to diet entirely misses what I believe is the most important reason to pursue it: the activation of hormetic processes that foster improved health, keep degenerative diseases at bay, and hold out the promise of a longer, more vibrant life. These benefits are a known consequence of calorie restriction, but intermittent fasting offers a more comfortable and versatile way to reap the benefits of calorie restriction without the sense of deprivation, the loss of lean body mass, and the metabolic risks that have been associated with simple calorie restriction.
It is because I’ve found intermittent fasting to be an attractive practice, both scientifically and personally, that I was so excited to be invited to give a lecture on IF at The 3rd Door, an innovative health and fitness studio, cafe and social center in downtown Palo Alto. The fitness director at The Third Door, Johnny Nguyen, is himself an advocate and practitoner of IF, which he blogs about with great flair and common sense at The Lean Saloon. The talk gave me an opportunity to reframe intermittent fasting in the terms of the philosophy of Hormetism, or applied hormesis that I write about on this blog. I believe that the framework of hormesis helps to make sense of why IF works, and why it is so much more than a diet.
What follows is a video of my talk on the benefits of intermittent fasting, presented on May 18, 2011 at The 3rd Door. I would like to thank Dianne Giancarlo and Johnny Nguyen for inviting me to speak, Vaciliki Papademetriou for technical assistance, Francesca Freedman for introducing me to The Third Door, Tom Merson for the still photos and Ken Becker for the masterful video production.
Do you have allergies? Are you sensitive to certain foods or chemicals? If so, you are part of an epidemic explosion in the incidence of allergies and sensitivities in the U.S. and Western societies. The allergy epidemic is frequently blamed on the profusion of pollutants and toxic man-made chemicals in modern industrial society. And the conventional medical approach to dealing with allergies is to avoid exposure to allergens, and to block allergic reactions by using antihistamines.
But there is an alternative explanation and a more effective treatment, consistent with the theory of hormesis. The explanation is called the hygiene hypothesis and the treatment is called allergen immunotherapy. I’ll discuss these both shortly, but first let’s look at what is really behind the outbreak of allergies in the modern world. Read More
I’m writing this post the week before Thanksgiving, to give you something to think about as you are polishing off that last piece of pie….
One of the most common reactions I get to my advice to try intermittent fasting is: I could never do that!
Like the Jackson Browne song “Running on Empty,” the word “fasting” often conjures up dire images of starvation and energy deprivation. Many of you reading this post may have experienced strong hunger pangs, headaches, tiredness, sweating and even shaking or wooziness when going without eating for even part of a day, much less a whole day. So it is natural to extrapolate such experiences into the thought that going without food for a day, or even several hours, would invariably lead to uncomfortable or even dangerous hypoglycermic symptoms. That, together with the negative image of fasting as something unhealthy or associated with eating disorders, leaves most people pale at the thought of even attempting a short fast.
But I tell you, if you don’t try fasting you are missing out on an enjoyable, incredibly energizing experience that will put you in control of your eating and improve your health, your energy and your outlook. Many people, myself included, have learned to fast for up to a day or even longer, on a regular basis and without negative repurcussions. Done correctly, short-term fasting is not dangerous, it’s actually health-promoting and greatly helps to retrain your appetite. If you need to lose weight, the fast helps both in reducing basal insulin and retraining your appetite to be smaller. I’ve written about the benefits of intermittent fasting extensively on this site. Many of the Diet Links listed in the right-hand panel, such as fast-5 and Eat-Stop-Eat, amply document the safety and health benefits of fasting, dispelling the myths about “starvation mode”, slowing of metabolism, and loss of lean muscle mass. So I won’t reiterate here the voluminous evidence supporting the benefits of intermittent fasting. Our bodies are designed to last many days with out food, without great discomfort, and in fact it is beneficial to our health to forgo food periodically. But many of you are asking: Am I really up to this? How do I get started? Read More
This week starts a new feature, where without comment I have linked some selected websites with ideas or accomplishments I think are particularly noteworthy, thought-provoking, or inspiring. Let me know how you like them and post your comments. A friend suggested this format, which I have modeled after “Assorted Links” in Seth Roberts’ blog. If this proves to be of interest, I’ll use it periodically.
If you look at all three of these links and don’t get at least one good idea to try next week…please let me know!